NEW YORK (MainStreet) Do you need to get your financial house in order but don't know where to start? You're not alone. With all the information out there, it can be hard to know where to begin educating yourself about your finances. Still, there are a number of free and low-cost ways you can start sorting through the noise and getting to the signal. We spoke to a team of personal finance experts to help you learn how to get the best personal finance education at the lowest price.
Start With Who You Know
John Heath, a directing attorney at LexingtonLaw, admits it can be easy to get bad information when trying to learn more about your finances. This is why he advises you to begin close to home.
"One of the best places to start is your employer," he says, urging people to pull their pay stubs, reviewing not only what they're paid but also what's deducted and why. "What kind of benefits are you getting? What are you paying for them? Are your benefits tax free?" Beginning with these questions is a simple place anyone can start collecting intel.
Read Reliable Sources
With so many personal finance "gurus" out there, it can be hard to know who's giving solid advice and who's selling snake oil. Ellie Kay, who dubs herself America's Family Financial Expert, recommends USAA's website as a great place for learning basic financial literacy about how to open an IRA, buy a car and how to manage and get out of debt.
Something to look out for? People trying to sell you products and services. "Someone selling you something doesn't necessarily mean they're giving bad advice," she says, "It just means their motive might be sales." This is why bigger organizations like USAA or PenFed.org can be such valuable resources.
Do Your Homework
Especially when it comes to lesser-known firms and nonprofits, you're going to need to do some due diligence to make sure that you're dealing with reputable people. Gail Cunningham with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling urges people to begin their vetting process with the Better Business Bureau. "What you're looking for are unresolved complaints," she says. "Anyone can have a bone to pick with a company, but if a company isn't resolving those complaints that's not a good sign."
From there, you can check with the state attorney general to see if there are any outstanding complaints. The best green flag? "Getting referrals from family and friends mean a lot," she says, "especially if they're people who are pretty savvy with their money."
Take a Class Or Three
Whether it's through your bank or the local community college, there's no shortage of classes you can take so that you know what you're looking at when you look at your own finances. "You can take courses at the local community college or even through state or federal programs," says Heath. "These are all things that should be explored until the person finds what's right for them."
Another underutilized resource? Your bank. "Excuse the pun, but your bank will have a wealth of information," Heath said. Especially for people who need the most basic kinds of financial education, like writing a check, balancing a checkbook and how interest rates work, the local bank or credit union can be enormously helpful.
What's more, Heath points out that when you head down to the bank you can talk to a representative about products and services that might be beneficial to you in terms of managing your finances. This is an ideal opportunity to ask your banker everything you've ever wanted to know about how, for example, a CD works.
For vets, there's the Military and Family Life Counseling program, which is free for both veterans and their families. Many of the counselors are CFPs. And as Kay points out, "in a military family's case, if your finances get out of control you can lose a security clearance -- your very career can depend on your financial health."
When it comes to taking control of your personal finances, a little bit of attention can go a very long way. "We're not really taught how to make use of our finite resources or how we can get ahead of ourselves if we misuse credit," says Heath.
Taking control of your personal finance helps to address that.
--Written by Nicholas Pell for MainStreet